Healing Power and Relationships

The “Mutual Need” of Clergy and Laity

Jesus was willing to “empty himself” of all power for us and our salvation (Phil. 2:6-8).

“When he had washed their feet and put on his clothes again he went back to the table. “Do you understand” he said “what I have done to you? You call me lord, and rightly: so I am. If I then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 12-15) 

He is acutely aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in and through him, especially in his cures. His use of power was for others and never for control or oppression. He demonstrated servant leadership in his washing of the feet of the apostles and had to constantly teach his apostles who bickered over rank and importance:

…anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. For the Son of Man Himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:44-45) 

He cautions his disciples about claiming special status. (Matthew 23:8) His disciples are commissioned to continue his mission through the power of the Holy Spirit in the same way. 


COVID-19 teaches us the absolute necessity of competent and just use of power and authority to prevent harm and protect all in communal and global threats.

The pandemic has demonstrated the tragic consequences of leadership failure to accept their primary duty and the use of fear to promote self-interest, ideology and economic advantage.

Many different types of well-coordinated expertise are necessary to respond to crisis.

Lessons: Crises such as pandemic, war and ecological disaster reveal deeply embedded cultural notions of power, position and authority

Power and the culture of the Church

Essentially, culture is a meaningful arrangement of society relationships, ideology, and power. Cultures are needed for a sense of order, consistency, identity and meaning but have a dark side which has been described as:

a more concealed set of subjective attitudes often assimilated unconsciously over a long time. Together these habits of acting and interpreting can either imprison people within prejudices or they can become avenues toward authentic living, toward self-transcending choices that challenge the negative bias of any culture. (Gallagher, 2003, p.24)

Cultures are intimately connected to power which may be life-giving or coercive. (Arbuckle, 2010) This possibility of corruption demands a prayerful, critically constructive reflection on the culture of power in the Church that shapes relationships between clergy and laity and women and men that are contrary to the Jesus words and witness. There are now many theological, sociological and anthropological analyses of abuse of power in the Church. (Higgins & Letson, 2002; Berry and Renner, 2004; Bartunek et. al., 2006; Frawley-O’Dea, 2007; Keenan, 2012 and Bullivant et. al. eds., 2016)

Abuse of power, position and conscience is manifested in every aspect of clergy sexual abuse of minors from coercion and seduction in the individual assaults to ‘gag orders’ and threatening whistleblowers, denial and active cover-up.  Abuse of power by clergy is now also recognized in the Vatican Bank scandal, global abuse of Religious and lay women and vulnerable others, including seminarians and Church employees.

Lesson: The culture of power in the Church has shaped relationships, roles and structures which now need reformation to the “mind of Christ”.

Relationships between clergy and laity

In remarkable contrast to the words and witness of Jesus, our fundamental relationships have been shaped by an imperial, monarchical, hierarchical, patriarchal, clerical and Euro-centric culture since the 4th Century reforms of Constantine. The Catholic Church is characterized by sharp distinctions between clergy and laity and an exalted, special character of the ordained. Influential teaching has stated:

“Bishops and priests being, as they are, God’s interpreters and ambassadors …no nobler function than theirs can be imagined. Justly therefore are they called not only Angels but even gods, because of the fact that they exercise in our midst the power and prerogatives of the immortal God.” (1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent)

Pope Pius X taught:

“It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society…with the pastoral body only rests the right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members toward that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the pastors.”(1906 Vehementer nos)

Clericalism has been defined as the conscious or unconscious concern to protect the interests and the privilege and power that traditionally has been conceded to those in the clerical state. Among its chief manifestations are an authoritarian style of ministerial leadership, a rigidly hierarchical worldview, and a virtual identification of the holiness and grace of the church with the clerical state and the clergy. It is reinforced by embodiments of special status in dress, address, and the “perks” of lavish lifestyles. Clericalism results in loss of touch with both the call to the holy and with those whom they are called to serve which Jesuit George Wilson concludes is “the death of priesthood.” (Wilson, 2008) It is a sinful elitist contradiction of the radical equality of the Gospel and the priesthood of all the baptized.

Pope Francis states clearly that clericalism:

“not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people….Clericalism must be understood as a challenge to the ongoing mission of Jesus in the Church and the relationships between disciples.” (2018, Letter to the People of God)

A theology of priesthood which focused on the ordained being “ontologically different” has fostered hierarchy and clericalism. Special status has been re-enforced since the 11th Century by mandatory celibacy in the Latin Roman rite.

A 2018 Boston College Seminar on Priesthood and Ministry for the Contemporary Church. (Boston College Seminar, 2018) brought together-women and men lay and ordained theologians, lay ecclesial ministers and committed laity to was attentive to the faith and contemporary circumstances-reading the signs of the times.  Consensus fidelium

The specific role of priest is in their relationship to the community of faith and the shared mission and priesthood of all the baptized…preacher, leader of worship and prayer, collaborative leader-not lone rangers, public representative, pastoral charity

Cardinal Marc Ouellet head of the Congregation for Bishops plans a February 2022 International Theological Symposium “For a fundamental theology of priesthood” which is open for all but intended for bishops. It will discuss celibacy, spirituality, women deacons and power to offer a renewed vision and a way of valuing all vocations while respecting what is specific to each. It develops its ‘high theology’ focus over three days which are chaired by a Cardinal and led by the heads of various Vatican offices identifies : tradition; Trinity, mission and sacramentality; and celibacy, charisma and spirituality. It identifies the importance of the synodal approach of “journeying together” but is in fact clerically directed.


Vatican II began a restoration of the fundamental priesthood of the baptized.

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God…” (1Peter 2:9)

Roles and structures

Lumen Gentium describes the Church as a community for mission and “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity among all peoples” (Lumen Gentium, no. 1). It also acknowledges that “The Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification.” (Lumen Gentium, no.8).

In recognizing different charisms for the works of witness, liturgy, community and service, it taught:

“… the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need” (Lumen Gentium, no. 32).

Many models and metaphors have been offered over the centuries to explore facets of the mystery of the Church.  No single model is complete in exploring the mystery. (Dulles, 1987)  The Church is a living mystery that calls us forth into ever-deeper prayer and reflection on the living reality for all times and cultures. We need an ecclesiology for the third millenium

(Gallardetz & Hahnnenburg eds. 2015)

A new understanding of the Church rooted in personal encounter with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit demands catechesis and evangelization and new structures and relationships that foster the mission. We need to resuscitate mutually supportive and accountable relationships between clergy and laity which witness to the radical equality of the baptized. The Triune God, who is in constant mutual love, invites all the baptized to accept their call to be disciples.

Ordained ministers, lay ecclesial ministers are not superior to laity but have specific functions. The ordained priesthood is situated in their relationship to the community of faith and the priesthood of the baptized. Distinctions are for mission not power and status.

Formation and education of clergy and laity

Formation is essential as it sets the tone…relationships and human formation (Pastores Dabo Vobis 1992)


General laity

Special laity


This knowledge raises important questions about the psychological assessment of candidates for ordination. The formation of priests in the isolation of the seminary further distances from them the daily reality and concerns of the laity. (Schuth, 2016)

Wearing special garb though lay; exceptionalism; separate from other men and women-we need more lay formation. Voting on advancement.

Bishops focusing on governance and management, not leadership for vision and service…Hierarchicalism…and non-accontability.



Mahoney ed. 2021 experiences of laity-

In light of pandemic challenges

Catholic education

Ministries –care of the sick and the poor.

Sacramental preparation

The Church’s unity is that of a communion, a unity of difference that witnesses to the truly “catholic” or universal dimension of God’s grace which is “neither divisive nor oppressive but gathers up genuine differences in an inclusive wholeness” (Gaillardetz, 2008, p35)

The education and formation of the laity to their role and responsibilities in the Church have been left to the homily-or sermon-for most. It is recognized that they have a secular role, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful.” (Deus caritas est, no.29.)

However, their role in the governance of the Church is advisory, at most, making mutual accountability impossible.

Lakeland, 2004-an accountable Church

Pope 2004; laity and governance of the Church

Teaching vs learning Church…..but Church is no longer in control of information. Interested laity can access many sources of information; some of these are uninformed.

Lessons Formation for new relationships of mutual accountability and support between clergy and laity are urgently required.


  1. Arbuckle, 2010,Culture, Inculturation and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.

Jean M. Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale and James Keenan, 2006 Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context: Learning from the Sex Abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, Rowan & Littlefield, Lanham, MD

Boston College Seminar on Priesthood and Ministry for the Contemporary Church,”To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry, 2018 Origins, vol. 48. No 31 484-493.

Stephen Bullivant, Eric Marcelo O. Genilo, Daniel Franklin Pilario and Agnes M.Brazal, eds., 2016 Theology and Power: International Perspectives, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, 2004, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II New York: Free Press.

Avery Dulles, 1987, Models of the Church, Expanded ed. Image Books, Garden City NY

Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church,1st ed. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, 2007

Richard R. Gaillardetz & Edward P Hahnnenberg eds.2015, A Church With Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millenium, Collegeville Press, MN.

Michael Paul Gallagher, 2003, Clashing Cymbals: An Introduction to Faith and Culture, New York: Paulist Press.

Michael W. Higgins and Douglas R. Letson, 2002 Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads ,Toronto: Harper Collins.

Marie Keenan, 2012 Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture New York: Oxford University Press

Paul Lakeland, 2004, The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church, Continuum, NY.

Anne Louise Mahoney ed. 2021 Looking to the Laity: Reflections on Where the Church Can Go from Here, Novalis

Stephen J. Pope ed., 2004 Common Calling: The Laity and Governance of the Catholic Church, Georgetown University Press Washington, DC. 

Katarina Schuth, 2016 Seminary Formation: Recent History, Current Circumstances, New

Directions Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

  1. B. Wilson 2008,Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 

Women’s Work in Healing the Church

Jesus treats women as disciples and they are the first witnesses of the Resurrection. “…Jesus said to them: Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee and they will see me there. (Matthew 28: 1-10).

The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus and his amazing countercultural interactions with women as friends and disciples. Jesus learns much from his courageous and faith-filled mother Mary. He scandalizes the apostles by having a deeply spiritual conversation with the Samaritan women at the well who brings this news to others (John 4:39-42). He reaches out to women on the periphery such as the untouchable woman with the hemorrhage, “Courage, my daughter, your faith has restored you to health.” (Matt 9:22) He is taught about his ministry by the brave Syrophoenician woman who begs for her daughter (Mark 7:24-30). 


The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women’s March 2021 meeting determined that many of the recent gains in women’s equality had been erased by COVID-19.

The quarantine and isolation of COVID-19 has resulted in what the United Nations has described as a “horrifying surge in domestic violence to women.”

Women have emerged as the hidden and underpaid heroines of pandemic. They provide care of the sickest and most vulnerable in hospitals, hospices, retirement homes and long-term care facilities at great risk to themselves and their families.

Women are excluded from political and strategic planning to cope with the crisis.

Lesson The Church cannot credibly reject all forms of violence and oppression against women and the vulnerable until it addresses its own institutionalized misogyny and sexist institutionalized structures and beliefs.

Women’s Experience in the Church

Jesus’ relationships with women and their involvement in the early Church are in sharp contrast to women’s experience. (Schenk, 2017) Sadly, many women in the Church have lost hope that the Church can address these issues and witness true inclusive and equality between men and women. (Schneiders, 1991)

Official teaching states:

“In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.37) and

…with respect for the rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. (1964 Lumen gentium no.29)

Sexism, the belief that some persons are superior to others based on their sex, is a sin “contrary to God’s intent” which is manifested in beliefs, attitudes and practices in the Church. There is need for atonement. 

Pope Paul VI declared that women lack the fullness of the image of God because Jesus was male. The male only priesthood was the intention of Christ and it would violate the “natural resemblance” needed to see Christ as male (Pope Paul VI, Inter Insignores, 1976). Pope John Paul stated:

…the revealed truth concerning man as “the image and likeness” of God constitutes the immutable basis of all Christian anthropology. … both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image. This is a prelude to the definitive self-revelation of the Triune God: a living unity in the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (1988 Mulieres Dignitatem nos. 6-7)

However, he maintained the relationship between women and men as complementarity, not equality. In this spousal understanding, women are receptive not active and are pre-ordained to the roles of nurturing and care at home, not for insights and leadership in the public domain.

Inclusion is a challenge when we can’t even agree on inclusive language in the Church. Pope Francis has said. 

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. (Evangelii Gaudium, no.43).

This surely applies to customs of language. For many women around the world, there is profound sadness that Pope Francis has titled his new encyclical Fratelli tutti. Brothers all; where are sisters? It is clear that the Pope Francis’ title is in homage to his patron, Saint Francis’ use of “fraternity.” This is a perfect example of medieval language, with its cultural context, no longer communicating the inclusivity of the Gospel and the Trinity. The Pope expresses sadness and anger at the reaction and inattention to the fundamental issues but….

Inclusive language is a first step because, as Pope Francis has said:

It has been rightly pointed out that an analogy exists between translation as an act of “linguistic” hospitality and other forms of hospitality. This is why translation does not concern language alone but really reflects a broader ethical decision connected with an entire approach to life. (Scripturae Sacrae Affectus, 2020)

Pope Francis has established a Papal Commission on women deacons in the early Church. It has had a “rocky” reception. This relates to differing judgments regarding the role of women deacons in the early Church and issues related to the clericalization of deacons. It does not include ordination to the priesthood which is a topic we are not allowed to discuss.


Post Synod on the Family Exhortation, Pope Francis

I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected. The verbal, physical, and sexual vio­lence that women endure in some marriages…the reprehensible genital mutilation of women practiced in some cultures… their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making. History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that con­sidered women inferior.  (March 2016 Amoris Laetitia: no. 54)

Oct 2018 Synod of Bishops calls for inclusion of women in all male decision-making structures as a duty of justice. Pope Francis has appointed an unprecedented number of women to positions of undersecretary to Curial offices. Most notable are his February, 2021 unprecedented appointment of Xaviere Sister Nathalie Becquet as an undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops with voting rights.  He has established a Papal Study Commission on Women’s Diaconate. It has had a difficult reception because of differences regarding the role of women deacons in the early Church and the ‘clericalization’ of women. Synod and Sr Alessandra Smerilli, an economist as a COVID-19 Committee of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Human Development member.

In his January 15, 2021 motu proprio Spiritus Domini, Pope Francis revised canon law to allow lay persons, male and female, to the ministries of lector and acolyte. Since this is formal approval of what has been in practice widely, the significance of the decision has been lost. Many episcopal conferences have ignored it. However, it is a crucial step in restoring the importance of the liturgy of the Word and in enabling the full and active participation of the whole people of God begun at Vatican II. It breaks the exclusive identification of authority with male gender and is a major step in dis-mantling clericalism. 


Women’s Insights

Pope Francis:

If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women. (March 2016 Amoris Laetitia: no. 54)

Women’s experience  and Catholic feminist scholars provide crucial insights for the healing and reconciling mission of Jesus in our post pandemic world. These include:

-Theologies of God must reject exclusive language and images of God as male which legitimates hierarchical structures (Carr, 1988; Johnson, 1992)

-Prayerful reflection on our understanding of God as father; reclaiming Jesus as “the Christ”; rejection of a hierarchy within the Trinity and exploration of its mystery of mutual, equal love.

-Women, who wash the feet of young and old, need to help restore Jesus’ servant leadership and use of power for others, never over them.

-Women’s roles from diocesan chancellor, vicar for Religious, finance officer and pastoral assistant need expansion.

– Catholic feminist ethics, commits to equal personal dignity, equal mutual respect and equal social power for men and women. (Clifford, 2001) It recognizes that the relational wisdom of women and its attention to the harm done to relationships is lost from discernment and decision making.

-It goes beyond the issues of abortion and birth control.

-Men and women are calling for a renewed theology of sexuality. (Salzman & Lawler, 2008) Women need to contribute toward this theology of sexuality based on love, mutuality and justice (Farley, 2012). Their approach embraces embodiment and rejects dualism where the body is sinful. (Cahill, Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics, 1996).

This renewal from the feminist perspective is essential for the catechesis and formation of adolescent and young women today. (Keiser, 2015) They are besieged by images of worth dominated by certain physical features, not intrinsic beauty and dignity.

Pope Francis reminded us:

in the history of salvation, it was a woman who welcomed God’s word. Women too kept alive the flame of faith in the dark night, awaiting and then proclaiming the Resurrection. …They are the protagonists of a Church that goes forth, listening and caring for the needs of others, capable of fostering true processes of justice…Listening, reflection and loving activity: these are the elements of a joy ever renewed and shared with others through feminine insights, the care of creation, the gestation of a more just world and the creation of a dialogue that respects and values differences. (October 7, 2020 message to the Women’s Consultation Group of the Pontifical Council for Culture)


For Discernment

What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?

What are the central organizational issues in need of reform consistent with beliefs and practices?

Some key references:

Beattie, Tina, New Catholic Feminism. New York: Routledge 2006.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle, John Garvey & T. Frank Kennedy eds. Sexuality and the U.S. Catholic Church: Crisis and Renewal. New York: Crossroad.  2006.

Carr, Anne. E., Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Anne M. Clifford, 2001, Introducing Feminist Theology Maryknoll, Orbis Books NY

Farley, Margaret A, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. New York: Continuum, 2012.

Johnson, Elizabeth, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Keiser, Doris M., Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015.

Patrick, Anne E., Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Moral Theology. New York: Continuum, 1996.

Salzman & Lawler, 2008

Sandra M. Schneiders,1991,  Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

  1. Schenk, 2017, Crispina and her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity,Fortress Press Minneapolis.

Elisabeth Schlusser-Fiorenza 1983, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, Crossroad, NY.

For Discernment:
  • What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?
  • What are the central organizational issues in need of reform consistent with beliefs and practices?